How my identity shaped my experiences in Israel and Palestine

At the border with Lebanon and Syria, we learnt about the contentious relationship between Israel and the Arab world. Credit: UJS

by Josh Walton

Something that I had never accounted for throughout the run-up to my trip to Israel and Palestine until reaching Heathrow Airport was that I, as a Briton, have an unusual place of birth; a place which would change the entire dynamic of my journey. I was born in Al Ain, a town in the United Arab Emirates.

In the grand scheme, the hiccups I had to endure were minimal in comparison to what others endure intimately connected to their identity, exemplified by the four Muslim students who were also travelling to Israel alongside me, trying to get through security to head to a country where identity and racial stereotypes arguably play a big part in the running of day to day life. These students, whom I became close friends with on the trip, went through not only longer and more intensive security checks than I, were also mocked by Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers on Temple Mount in Jerusalem and reported a constant feeling that they were being watched and sometimes judged by the local population.

My experience seemed like nothing compared to theirs, but regardless, being born in Al Ain caused a hold up during my security checks at Heathrow Airport, which were more extensive and intensive than what others travelling with me experienced. Despite my tanned complexion, I am a white, British man, however, the fact that I was born in an Arab country meant I was held back longer than most others. I found that, unlike many of my friends, I was being asked questions which intended to uncover whether I may pose a danger to anyone.

This relatively intense interrogation from El Al security officers at the airport reflected how one aspect of my identity was near dictating my current experience. I was not simply being asked questions about where I live, what I study and what my parents do for a living; I was actively trying to prove that I’m not an Arab nor do I have a close connection to anybody from the Arab world. This scared me.

This airport scrutiny experience may not sound like a lot, but it changed my perspective on the everyday reality of life in Israel and Palestine. To be under such intense scrutiny, sometimes by security officers with guns strapped around their necks, was an eye-opening experience for me. I’d studied numerous books on the history of Israel and Palestine and the nature of life within the region, had many discussions with my father who has visited Israel, Palestine and travelled throughout the Middle East, but without even leaving Heathrow Airport I had already learnt so much before arriving in Israel.

It was at that point that the scope and importance of this trip became greater than I could ever have imagined; thanks to my birthplace and the identity it gave me, I was granted the ability to engage in conversations on my travels with a renewed understanding. But what’s more, I got to meet some incredible people, I made some friends for life and I learnt infinite lessons throughout my travels. In the words of Anthony D’Angelo, “you can learn a lot from people who view the world differently than you do.”

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Why Did Gair Rhydd Visit Israel and Palestine?

• To hear from people on the ground about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

•To encourage greater understanding of the complexities of the conflict to help us facilitate discussion about the situation upon returning home outside of the traditional media narrative.

•To prompt us to begin considering how discussions can move forward in the hopes of one day finding a solution to the conflict.

•To show us first-hand how fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations are to broaden our understanding of the struggles faced by all who are intimately affected by the conflict.

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This trip was facilitated by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). They have been around since 1919, addressing the concerns of 8,500 Jewish Students in Universities. They aim to lead campaigns fighting prejudice, creating inclusive environments, and educating people on divisive issues. To find out more about the work UJS do, head over to their website.